Cover Photo: Chris Buck
Chris Buck

Imposter

I went to the elevator and when the doors opened, there was Chloë Sevigny, standing against the back wall.

In the summer of 2003, a friend who knew I needed a place to live asked me if I would be interested in subletting her apartment near Gramercy Park in New York. She was trying to sell it as it was too small for her and her fiancé, but the sale had taken too long, and in the meantime, she’d moved out to Park Slope to live with him instead. She wasn’t legally allowed to rent, so the deal she offered was that I would pay only the maintenance, a more than reasonable $900 a month, and I would keep the place perfect when the realtor came by—and move out once the apartment sold.

I agreed, though I wasn’t sure I could hold up my end of the deal—I’d never been neat before. But once I moved in, somehow, magically, I was. The realtor would call, giving me as much notice as possible, and I’d wash any dishes in the sink, straighten out the bedspread, hang the towels, wipe down the faucets and head to one of the cafes in Gramercy until it was safe to return. My friends who came over couldn’t believe it, and neither could I. But I’d have done much more if she’d asked.  

It was the sort of apartment you dream you’ll have in New York before you live there but that you usually don’t get: a one bedroom co-op on the 19th floor, with views north up Third Avenue to where the horizon cuts off and across the city west toward the Hudson. And I could watch the East River out my porthole of a window whenever I did those dishes.

Every day, the apartment felt like some just reward after a long period of hard work, even a sign that further success was close by. The paperback of my first novel had just come out from Picador and with that money, in addition to money from teaching, I felt rich for the first time in my life as a writer. I knew I was not rich in a way that anyone else in the building would recognize, but I was writer rich. I had money earned from writing that I would spend on more time to write, and the cheap deal on the beautiful apartment meant the money would last even longer—it even felt like the beginning of more of that money and more of that success. It was a beautiful moment, when the money and the time it represented added up to a possibility for the future that felt as vast as the edges of the known world. The apartment’s views resembled the way I wanted to feel about my own future each time I looked at them.

The only sign of darkness was that I was trying to begin work on my second novel and it was not going well. Each week I abandoned it by Friday and returned to it on Monday, as if it was a bad love affair. I think somehow I knew even then that the novel would take me a decade to finish. But the apartment made my despair easier to bear.

Whatever was happening with my writing, I liked to sit and watch the clouds go by over the city. It was like living in the sky. The windows were large and ancient, original, window-paned in black iron, and they had old latches that needed looking after or they’d rattle in the high winds and a pane might crack. There were two patios, one quite small, suitable for standing on alone or with one other person, for a cigarette and a whiskey. The other was good for sitting down with company. These were lined with a mix of plants, some dead, some alive, but as the sun set you never saw them. Instead you saw the city, and you counted the landmarks in the view. Which, I learned when I lived there, cost money. Each landmark you could see added something to the price. It was funny to think of the Empire State Building adding, say, fifteen thousand to the value of your apartment if you could see it.

I had sublet often in this life, but this time was different. In previous sublets, I’d been around other people’s things, but here I was with my own, and I found I liked my things in this apartment in some way I hadn’t before. I hadn’t been much for possessions, never had spent more than a few dollars on any particular piece of furniture because what was the point of having things if you couldn’t write? You would only sell them in order to write, as I’d learned early on in New York, standing in line at the Strand to sell a few used books just to get lunch. The books on my shelf after all this time have withstood at least a thousand moments when I scanned them, deciding which ones I could or could not turn into money in order to eat if this or that check failed to come through. A library of survivors.

I think writers are often terrifying to normal people, i.e. non writers in a capitalist system, for this reason: there is almost nothing they will not sell in order to have this time. Time is our mink, our Lexus, our mansion. In a room full of writers of various kinds, time is probably the only thing that can provoke widespread envy more than acclaim. Acclaim which of course means access to money, which then becomes time.

If I could be said to like things, they were mostly books. But for all of that I had a few good things, or not-terrible ones, and here my things looked beautiful, even a little grand. I had a red leather couch and wingback chair that had once been in my dad’s office and that looked very rich here, alongside an antique table with corkscrewed legs, bought from a friend leaving for Los Angeles. If I was going to act like someone who belonged in a co-op building, a part of the charade of living here, it seemed they were apparently going to act like the furniture of such a man. All of it lit lovingly by my friend’s Italian chandelier, decorated merrily with glass pears, grapes and apples.

When the news came that fall that I had won both a Whiting Award and a NEA Fellowship, I began to call it my lucky chandelier. Either of these awards were enough to make you feel like you’d had a good year, but winning them together was to me a clear sign that the magic promise of the apartment was real. Surely it will be easier now, I told myself. Surely this is what it means to have made it. I think many writers pass through this. But believing trouble is gone forever is the beginning of a special kind of trouble.

One Saturday morning a month after moving in, I went to the elevator and when the doors opened, there was Chloë Sevigny, standing against the back wall.

I am not easily or often starstruck. But in her case, I was. I had loved her ever since Boys Don’t Cry, when in the course of a single movie she became, to me, one of the most important actresses of my generation. Now here she was.

Her eyes were level, focused on some middle distance far away from anything in the elevator shaft. She was wearing spectator pumps and a white Burberry Prorsum trench coat, belted, the collar up. A hapless-looking skinny boy, his arm covered in sleeves of tattoos, accompanied her. He was dressed in a trucker hat, expensive jeans and a wifebeater shirt and looked around in dismay, as if there might be some hidden exit in the elevator he could use, if only he could find it.

The elevator descended quietly, and somewhere around the tenth floor she said, without looking at him, “Did you give them my name?”

He said nothing as the elevator descended. I remembered it was Fashion Week; the Marc Jacobs show was that morning. She was likely on her way, though it could have been anywhere, anything.

“Did you. Give them. My. Name?” As she said these they were wrapped in fire, hanging in the air, perfectly timed to the floors flying by, the last said just before the elevator finally stopped. Her companion still said nothing. The doors opened, and she flew off through the lobby, those spectator pumps flashing and echoing on the marble floors as he chased behind her, failure that he apparently was.

I never saw him again. Her, however, I saw regularly. The elevator was soon like a little theater of her. The doors would open and she would be there, sometimes dressed very elegantly, sometimes in a wifebeater and Daisy Dukes, a bottle of Woolite perched on her hip, going to the basement to do a little laundry. It was the best ad Woolite never had. She soon would nod when she recognized me, before the doors closed again. But I never intruded on her, never spoke to her.

We continued like this until one day in the lobby, as I got my mail, the concierge, a very sweet older woman who I think had decided she didn’t care that I was living there illegally, said my name. I went over to her. “Alexander, Chloë here is interested in seeing the apartment, she understands it is for sale.”

I turned. There ‘Chloë’ was, looking at me expectantly.

I don’t remember what she was wearing then because my mind went white. It still seems to me she is more beautiful in person, or on film, than in photos. Something happens across moments with her that isn’t apparent in a still. “Is it for sale?” she asked, her direct attention blinding me.

I tried to stay calm as I answered. “Yes, it is.” I remembered a warning from my friend: “Do not show the apartment on your own,” she had said to me. “Only the realtor shows it.”

But this is Chloë, I said to myself then. I decided to disobey my friend exactly once.

I will always remember what happened next: her walking around the apartment, saying, “I’m subletting from a friend upstairs and I think she should just buy this place and just go through the floor. I mean, it’s so cheap, don’t you think?”

We were both subletters, then. My affection for her quickened. I didn’t think it was cheap, though, not at all. My friend was asking $579,000 for it back then, about a thousand dollars a square foot. A few weeks earlier, I’d stood in that room with a friend who’d asked the price, and when I told him, he outlined a square foot in the air with his hands. “Fill it with a thousand dollars and then do that 579 more times, and then it’s yours,” he said.

Here in front of me, she was like an apparition, an emanation of all of that money, ambition and desire, glowing as she walked the apartment. My imposter self wasn’t going to let go of the idea that I was just like her, not now, not in the face of our idol. And so I felt myself nod at the idea that it was cheap, like I agreed. But now the extent of my charade was apparent to me, and the joy of her being there was tinged with shame.

“It’s a steal,” she said, looking out at the view and turning back to me. “She has to buy this, don’t you think? I mean, the view is so beautiful. She’d be stupid not to buy it.”

I nodded—I didn’t know her friend—and gave her the realtor’s card, and then she left

There were lots of reasons not to buy in the building at the time, another friend revealed. The maintenance was high. The building was brick, which can crack with age, and the mortar eventually needs replacing, never good for a long-term investment. The apartment eventually sold to a school administrator, someone with family money.

I spent the rest of my stay there as I had before, but now, when I was on my patio, I heard her on hers, wishing I had the nerve to leave a copy of my novel for her in the lobby with a note. But I never did. It felt terrible and sad to do something like that, like a compromise with someone I’d never agreed to be. Someone else would have found a way to be upstairs, I think, but that was not me. And so it was I last spoke to her, right before I moved out, in the lobby again, getting my mail. She passed me and said, “Hey Alexander,” and smiled. I paused, paralyzed by love, before saying “Hey” back, like it was any other day.

The real me, it turned out, was too shy to explain I was leaving. He was in charge again, he had his reasons, and he sometimes told me them. But I left happy she knew my name.

The chandelier I took with me. It hangs in my kitchen now.

Alexander Chee's second novel, THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, will appear in February of 2016 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.